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Human impact on the environment or anthropogenic impact on the environment includes impacts on biophysical environments, biodiversity and other resources. The term anthropogenic designates an effect or object resulting from human activity. The term was first used in the technical sense by Russian geologist A. P. Pavlov, and was first used in English by British ecologist Arthur Tansley in reference to human influences on climax plant communities. The atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen introduced the term "anthropocene" in the mid-1970s. The term is sometimes used in the context of pollution emissions that are produced as a result of human activities but applies broadly to all major human impacts on the environment.
The application of technology (in general) often results in unavoidable environmental impacts, which according to the I=PAT equation is measured as resource use or pollution generated per unit GDP. Environmental impacts caused by the application of technology are often unavoidable for several reasons. First, given that the purpose of many technologies is to exploit, control, or otherwise “improve” upon nature for the perceived benefit of mankind while at the same time the myriad of processes in nature have been optimized and are continually adjusted by evolution, any disturbance of these natural processes by technology is likely to result in negative environmental consequences. Second, the conservation of mass principle and the first law of thermodynamics (i.e., conservation of energy) dictate that whenever material resources or energy are moved around or manipulated by technology, environmental consequences are inescapable. Third, according to the second law of thermodynamics, order can be increased within a system (such as the human economy) only by increasing disorder or entropy outside the system (i.e., the environment). Thus, technologies can create “order” in the human economy (i.e., order as manifested in buildings, factories, transportation networks, communication systems, etc.) only at the expense of increasing “disorder” in the environment. According to a number of studies, increased entropy is likely to be correlated to negative environmental impacts.
The environmental impact of agriculture varies based on the wide variety of agricultural practices employed around the world.
The environmental impact of fishing can be divided into issues that involve the availability of fish to be caught, such as overfishing, sustainable fisheries, and fisheries management; and issues that involve the impact of fishing on other elements of the environment, such as by-catch.
These conservation issues are part of marine conservation, and are addressed in fisheries science programs. There is a growing gap between how many fish are available to be caught and humanity’s desire to catch them, a problem that gets worse as the world population grows.
Similar to other environmental issues, there can be conflict between the fishermen who depend on fishing for their livelihoods and fishery scientists who realize that if future fish populations are to be sustainable then some fisheries must reduce or even close.
The journal Science published a four-year study in November 2006, which predicted that, at prevailing trends, the world would run out of wild-caught seafood in 2048. The scientists stated that the decline was a result of overfishing, pollution and other environmental factors that were reducing the population of fisheries at the same time as their ecosystems were being degraded. Yet again the analysis has met criticism as being fundamentally flawed, and many fishery management officials, industry representatives and scientists challenge the findings, although the debate continues. Many countries, such as Tonga, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and international management bodies have taken steps to appropriately manage marine resources.
The environmental impact of irrigation includes the changes in quantity and quality of soil and water as a result of irrigation and the ensuing effects on natural and social conditions at the tail-end and downstream of the irrigation scheme.
The impacts stem from the changed hydrological conditions owing to the installation and operation of the scheme.
An irrigation scheme often draws water from the river and distributes it over the irrigated area. As a hydrological result it is found that:
These may be called direct effects.
The effects thereof on soil and water quality are indirect and complex, Water logging and soil salination are part of these, whereas the subsequent impacts on natural, ecological and socio-enonomic conditions is very intricate.
Irrigation can also be done extracting groundwater by (tube)wells. As a hydrological result it is found that the level of the water descends. The effects may be water mining, land/soil subsidence, and, along the coast, saltwater intrusion.
Irrigation projects can have large benefits, but the negative side effects are often overlooked Agricultural irrigation technologies such as high powered water pumps, dams, and pipelines are responsible for the large-scale depletion of fresh water resources such as aquifers, lakes, and rivers. Humans appropriate more than 50% of the planet’s fresh water, mostly for use in irrigation. As a result of this massive diversion of freshwater, lakes, rivers, and creeks are running dry, severely altering or stressing surrounding ecosystems, and contributing to the extinction of many aquatic species.
The industrialization of agriculture during the last 150 years, specifically the wide-spread use of fossil fuel powered farm machinery for plowing, has resulted in massive top soil loss. Soils are currently lost at the rate of inches per decade while it takes hundreds of years for one inch of new topsoil to form. In the United States, 90% of the cropland is losing topsoil at a rate faster than is being formed. Worldwide, about one third of arable land has been lost due to erosion.
The environmental impact of meat production includes pollution and the use of resources such as fossil fuels, water, and land. According to a 2006 report by the Livestock, Environment And Development Initiative, the livestock industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation worldwide, and modern practices of raising animals for food contributes on a "massive scale" to air and water pollution, land degradation, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. The initiative concluded that "the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." In 2006 FAO estimated that meat industry contributes 18% of all emissions of greenhouse gasses. This figure was challenged in 2009 by two World-Watch researchers who estimated a 51% minimum, however this paper has not been peer reviewed.
Animals fed on grain need more water than grain crops. In tracking food animal production from the feed through to the dinner table, the inefficiencies of meat, milk and egg production range from a 4:1 energy input to protein output ratio up to 54:1. The result is that producing animal-based food is typically much less efficient than the harvesting of grains, vegetables, legumes, seeds and fruits for direct human consumption.
Relatedly, the production and consumption of meat and other animal products is associated with the clearing of rainforests, resource depletion, air and water pollution, land and economic inefficiency, species extinction, and other environmental harms.
The author of the influential 2006 Stern Review on climate change has stated "people will need to turn vegetarian if the world is to conquer climate change". This is due to emissions of methane (which is 23 times more potent of a greenhouse gas versus carbon dioxide) from cows and pigs via flatulence and eructation.
Palm oil, produced from the oil palm, is a basic source of income for many farmers in Southeast Asia, Central and West Africa, and Central America. It is locally used as a cooking oil, exported for use in many commercial food and personal care products and is converted into biofuel. It produces up to 10 times more oil per unit area as soyabeans, rapeseed or sunflowers. Oil palms produce 38% of vegetable oil output on 5% of the world’s vegetable-oil farmland. Palm oil is under increasing scrutiny in relation to its effects on the environment.
The environmental impact of energy harvesting and consumption is diverse. In recent years there has been a trend towards the increased commercialization of various renewable energy sources.
In the real world of consumption of fossil fuel resources which lead to global warming and climate change however, little change is being made in many parts of the world. Chinese petroleum demand, for instance, is projected to grow nearly 20% in the next six years, and that country already imports over half of the 8 million barrels a day it uses. If the peak oil theory proves true, more explorations of viable alternative energy sources, could be more friendly to the environment.
Rapidly advancing technologies can achieve a transition of energy generation, water and waste management, and food production towards better environmental and energy usage practices using methods of systems ecology and industrial ecology.
The environmental impact of biodiesel is diverse.
The environmental impact of coal mining and burning is diverse. Legislation passed by the US Congress in 1990 required the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a plan to alleviate toxic pollution from coal-fired power plants. After delay and litigation, the EPA now has a court-imposed deadline of March 16, 2011, to issue its report.
The environmental impact of electricity generation is significant because modern society uses large amounts of electrical power. This power is normally generated at power plants that convert some other kind of energy into electricity. Each such system has advantages and disadvantages, but many of them pose environmental concerns.
The environmental impact of nuclear power results from the nuclear fuel cycle processes including mining, processing, transporting and storing fuel and radioactive fuel waste. Released radioisotopes pose a health danger to human populations, animals and plants as radioactive particles enter organisms through various transmission routes.
Radiation is a carcinogen and causes numerous effects on living organisms and systems. The environmental impacts of nuclear power plant releases such as the Chernobyl disaster, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the Three Mile Island accident, among others, persist indefinitely. The radioactive decay rate of particles varies greatly, dependent upon the atomic properties of a particular isotope. Radioactive Plutonium-244 has a half-life of 80.8 million years, which indicates the time duration required for half of a given sample to decay.
The environmental impact of the oil shale industry includes the consideration of issues such as land use, waste management, and water and air pollution caused by the extraction and processing of oil shale. Surface mining of oil shale deposits causes the usual environmental impacts of open-pit mining. In addition, the combustion and thermal processing generate waste material, which must be disposed of, and harmful atmospheric emissions, including carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Experimental in-situ conversion processes and carbon capture and storage technologies may reduce some of these concerns in future, but may raise others, such as the pollution of groundwater.
The environmental impact of petroleum is often negative because it is toxic to almost all forms of life. The possibility of climate change exists. Petroleum, commonly referred to as oil, is closely linked to virtually all aspects of present society, especially for transportation and heating for both homes and for commercial activities.
The environmental impact of reservoirs is coming under ever increasing scrutiny as the world demand for water and energy increases and the number and size of reservoirs increases.
Dams and the reservoirs can be used to supply drinking water, generate hydroelectric power, increasing the water supply for irrigation, provide recreational opportunities and to improve certain aspects of the environment. However, adverse environmental and sociological impacts have also been identified during and after many reservoir constructions. Although the impact varies greatly between different dams and reservoirs, common criticisms include preventing sea-run fish from reaching their historical mating grounds, less access to water downstream, and a smaller catch for fishing communities in the area. Advances in technology have provided solutions to many negative impacts of dams but these advances are often not viewed as worth investing in if not required by law or under the threat of fines. Whether reservoir projects are ultimately beneficial or detrimental—to both the environment and surrounding human populations— has been debated since the 1960s and probably long before that. In 1960 the construction of Llyn Celyn and the flooding of Capel Celyn provoked political uproar which continues to this day. More recently, the construction of Three Gorges Dam and other similar projects throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America have generated considerable environmental and political debate.
Compared to the environmental impact of traditional energy sources, the environmental impact of wind power is relatively minor. Wind power consumes no fuel, and emits no air pollution, unlike fossil fuel power sources. The energy consumed to manufacture and transport the materials used to build a wind power plant is equal to the new energy produced by the plant within a few months. While a wind farm may cover a large area of land, many land uses such as agriculture are compatible, with only small areas of turbine foundations and infrastructure made unavailable for use.
There are reports of bird and bat mortality at wind turbines, as there are around other artificial structures. The scale of the ecological impact may or may not be significant, depending on specific circumstances. Prevention and mitigation of wildlife fatalities, and protection of peat bogs, affect the siting and operation of wind turbines.
There are conflicting reports about the effects of noise on people who live very close to a wind turbine.
The environmental impact of cleaning agents is diverse. In recent years, measures have been taken to reduce these effects.
Nanotechnology's environmental impact can be split into two aspects: the potential for nanotechnological innovations to help improve the environment, and the possibly novel type of pollution that nanotechnological materials might cause if released into the environment. As nanotechnology is an emerging field, there is great debate regarding to what extent industrial and commercial use of nanomaterials will affect organisms and ecosystems.
The environmental impact of paint is diverse. Traditional painting materials and processes can have harmful effects on the environment, including those from the use of lead and other additives. Measures can be taken to reduce environmental impact, including accurately estimating paint quantities so that wastage is minimized, use of paints, coatings, painting accessories and techniques that are environmentally preferred. The United States Environmental Protection Agency guidelines and Green Star ratings are some of the standards that can be applied.
The environmental impact of paper is significant, which has led to changes in industry and behaviour at both business and personal levels. With the use of modern technology such as the printing press and the highly mechanised harvesting of wood, paper has become a cheap commodity. This has led to a high level of consumption and waste. With the rise in environmental awareness due to the lobbying by environmental organizations and with increased government regulation there is now a trend towards sustainability in the pulp and paper industry.
The environmental impact of pesticides is often greater than what is intended by those who use them. Over 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species, including nontarget species, air, water, bottom sediments, and food. Pesticide contaminates land and water when it escapes from production sites and storage tanks, when it runs off from fields, when it is discarded, when it is sprayed aerially, and when it is sprayed into water to kill algae.
The amount of pesticide that migrates from the intended application area is influenced by the particular chemical's properties: its propensity for binding to soil, its vapor pressure, its water solubility, and its resistance to being broken down over time. Factors in the soil, such as its texture, its ability to retain water, and the amount of organic matter contained in it, also affect the amount of pesticide that will leave the area. Some pesticides contribute to global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer.
The environmental impact of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) is largely speculative. PPCPs are substances used by individuals for personal health or cosmetic reasons and the products used by agribusiness to boost growth or health of livestock. PPCPs have been detected in water bodies throughout the world. The effects of these chemicals on humans and the environment are not yet known, but to date there is no scientific evidence that they have an impact on human health.
The environmental impact of mining includes erosion, formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals from mining processes. In some cases, additional forest logging is done in the vicinity of mines to increase the available room for the storage of the created debris and soil. Besides creating environmental damage, the contamination resulting from leakage of chemicals also affect the health of the local population. Mining companies in some countries are required to follow environmental and rehabilitation codes, ensuring the area mined is returned to close to its original state. Some mining methods may have significant environmental and public health effects.
The environmental impact of transport is significant because it is a major user of energy, and burns most of the world's petroleum. This creates air pollution, including nitrous oxides and particulates, and is a significant contributor to global warming through emission of carbon dioxide, for which transport is the fastest-growing emission sector. By subsector, road transport is the largest contributor to global warming.
Environmental regulations in developed countries have reduced the individual vehicles emission; however, this has been offset by an increase in the number of vehicles, and more use of each vehicle. Some pathways to reduced the carbon emissions of road vehicles considerably have been studied. Energy use and emissions vary largely between modes, causing environmentalists to call for a transition from air and road to rail and human-powered transport, and increase transport electrification and energy efficiency.
Other environmental impacts of transport systems include traffic congestion and automobile-oriented urban sprawl, which can consume natural habitat and agricultural lands. By reducing transportation emissions globally, it is predicted that there will be significant positive effects on Earth's air quality, acid rain, smog and climate change.
The health impact of transport emissions is also of concern. A recent survey of the studies on the effect of traffic emissions on pregnancy outcomes has linked exposure to emissions to adverse effects on gestational duration and possibly also intrauterine growth.
The environmental impact of aviation occurs because aircraft engines emit noise, particulates, and gases which contribute to climate change and global dimming. Despite emission reductions from automobiles and more fuel-efficient and less polluting turbofan and turboprop engines, the rapid growth of air travel in recent years contributes to an increase in total pollution attributable to aviation. In the EU, greenhouse gas emissions from aviation increased by 87% between 1990 and 2006. Among other factors leading to this phenomenon are the increasing number of hypermobile travellers and social factors that are making air travel commonplace, such as frequent flyer programs.
There is an ongoing debate about possible taxation of air travel and the inclusion of aviation in an emissions trading scheme, with a view to ensuring that the total external costs of aviation are taken into account.
The environmental impact of roads includes the local effects of highways (public roads) such as on noise, water pollution, habitat destruction/disturbance and local air quality; and the wider effects including climate change from vehicle emissions. The design, construction and management of roads, parking and other related facilities as well as the design and regulation of vehicles can change the impacts to varying degrees.
The environmental impact of shipping includes greenhouse gas emissions and oil pollution. Carbon dioxide emissions from shipping is currently estimated at 4 to 5% of the global total, and estimated by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to rise by up to 72% by 2020 if no action is taken. There is also a potential for introducing invasive species into new areas through shipping, usually by attaching themselves to the ship's hull.
The First Intersessional Meeting of the IMO Working Group on Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Ships took place in Oslo, Norway on 23–27 June 2008. It was tasked with developing the technical basis for the reduction mechanisms that may form part of a future IMO regime to control greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping, and a draft of the actual reduction mechanisms themselves, for further consideration by IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC).
As well as the cost to human life and society, there is a significant environmental impact of war. Scorched earth methods during, or after war have been in use for much of recorded history but with modern technology war can cause a far greater devastation on the environment. Unexploded ordnance can render land unusable for further use or make access across it dangerous or fatal.
Human impact on biodiversity is significant, humans have caused the extinction of many species, including the dodo and, potentially, large megafaunal species during the last ice age. Though most experts agree that human beings have accelerated the rate of species extinction, the exact degree of this impact is unknown, perhaps 100 to 1000 times the normal background rate of extinction. Some authors have postulated that without human interference the biodiversity of this planet would continue to grow at an exponential rate.
Human impact on coral reefs is significant. Coral reefs are dying around the world. In particular, coral mining, pollution (organic and non-organic), overfishing, blast fishing and the digging of canals and access into islands and bays are serious threats to these ecosystems. Coral reefs also face high dangers from pollution, diseases, destructive fishing practices and warming oceans. In order to find answers for these problems, researchers study the various factors that impact reefs. The list of factors is long, including the ocean's role as a carbon dioxide sink, atmospheric changes, ultraviolet light, ocean acidification, biological virus, impacts of dust storms carrying agents to far flung reefs, pollutants, algal blooms and others. Reefs are threatened well beyond coastal areas.
General estimates show approximately 10% world's coral reefs are already dead. It is estimated that about 60% of the world's reefs are at risk due to destructive, human-related activities. The threat to the health of reefs is particularly strong in Southeast Asia, where 80% of reefs are endangered.
Climate change is the result of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations which is caused primarily by the combustion of fossil energy sources such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Such massive alteration of the global carbon cycle has only been possible because of the availability and deployment of advanced technologies, ranging in application from fossil fuel exploration, extraction, distribution, refining, and combustion in power plants and automobile engines. Potential negative environmental impacts caused by increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are rising global air temperatures, altered hydrogeological cycles resulting in more frequent and severe droughts, storms, and floods, as well as sea level rise and ecosystem disruption.
Human impact on the nitrogen cycle is diverse. Agricultural and industrial nitrogen (N) inputs to the environment currently exceed inputs from natural N fixation. As a consequence of anthropogenic inputs, the global nitrogen cycle (Fig. 1) has been significantly altered over the past century. Global atmospheric nitrous oxide (N2O) mole fractions have increased from a pre-industrial value of ~270 nmol/mol to ~319 nmol/mol in 2005. Human activities account for over one-third of N2O emissions, most of which are due to the agricultural sector.
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